Wednesday, October 31, 2012

170: The Self-Empowered Woman: Daniele Delpeuch

Dear Followers,

Last month the Weinstein company bought the American rights to a French film that is receiving a lot of attention on the other side of the Atlantic. Titled "Les Saveurs du Palais" ("The Tastes of the Palace" in French, but movie titled "Haute Cuisine" in English), it is based on the story of the first female chef to work in the Elysee Palace, and prepare food for French President Francois Mitterand.

Today, Daniele Delpeuch is 70 years old, and enjoying a new sense of recognition for her groundbreaking role as the first female chef to work in the Palace kitchen. Although she is considered to be an authority on the cuisine of the Perigord, she was actually born in Paris. But her father died when she was twelve years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and she moved with her mother to live on her grandmother's farm in a 700-year old stone farmhouse.

Her grandmother's way of life introduced her to the value of fresh, hearty, simple French cuisine (2: An Early Sense of Direction), and by the time Delpeuch was 25 years old, she was married and the mother of four children. In 1974, she began working at the farm where her skill in the kitchen attracted foodies and American tourists to visit, eat and stayAfter becoming the supplier to a number of  famous French chefs, she became famous for her foie gras. She worked so hard to revive the near-extinct industry that she became known as "the queen of foie gras" (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Soon after she opened the first cooking school in the Perigord, travelled to the US to teach cooking classes, became friends with Julia Child, and even lived for a short while in Paris. By 1980, the French agricultural industry (no doubt impressed by her rich harvest of truffles from the farm's acres of oak trees) awarded her Chevalier du Merite Agricole, its highest honor. She was one of only a handful of women to receive the decoration (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

One of  the chefs who had purchased her foie gras for years recommended her for the job of personal chef for President Mitterand, who had asked his Culture Minister to find someone who could prepare dishes the way his grandmother had. At the time, Delpeuch was divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming), and her children were grown, so she decided to take the chance, move to 55 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, and go to work in the Palace's kitchen (11: Risk Addiction).

The other (all-male) chefs were not welcoming. When the kitchen staff had their first (and only) lunch together they made fun of her, in part because of her "no frills" food and in part because of her gender. They gave her nicknames like "Countess du Barry" (who had been the favorite mistress of King Louis XV), and "Mamie Nova" (a brand of dairy products whose logo is a grandmother) (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

Delpeuch singlemindedly focused all her attention on keeping the President's taste buds happy (10: The Critic Within), but in the process alienated a lot of people. Some even referred to her as "a self-righteous Joan of Arc of the kitchen," because she ignored the nutritionists hired by the Presidents doctor, insisted on buying ingredients from her own suppliers, and often went over budget.

After working for the President for two years, Delpeuch had had enough of her hostile kitchen environment, and resigned. In her words "I turned the page quickly" (14: Selective Disassociation). Her next adventure was to move to the Antarctica, where she worked as a cook for 60 people at a French scientific research station. She was very well paid, but food deliveries were only made once every four months.

Since her departure, she has written a cookbook and is enjoying her new found fame on the big screen. She still bristles at the idea that the French, in general, expect cooking in the home to be done by a woman, but consider male chefs to be "artists of the kitchen." Unfortunately, Palace chefs are still male, but--after all--French women didn't receive the right to vote until 1944.

Looking forward to your comments...

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